Over a very large part of the secluded area there is no evidence that human flesh was ever eaten, and no first-hand account of it is recorded by Fynn, Livingstone, Galton, Speke, or Baker. In several places the native inhabitants knew that cannibalism existed elsewhere; Speke and Baker give examples of this. Fynn mentions a tribe living in the vicinity of the Zulu that was stated to have taken to eating human flesh when their cattle were stolen; but this was not confirmed by direct observation, and the vast majority of Kafrid tribes were never cannibals, so far as is known. No suggestion is made anywhere that any Nilotid was ever a cannibal. Schweinfurth remarks of the Dinka (Ni), ‘It is scarcely necessary to say that the accounts of the cannibalism of the Niam-Niam excite as much horror amongst them as amongst ourselves.’

Du Chaillu made his acquaintance with cannibalism in Fang (Pan 3) territory. He had been inclined to disbelieve in its reality, but the evidence was plain when he first entered a village of this tribe. ‘I perceived some bloody remains which looked to me human,’ he remarks; ‘but I passed on, still incredulous. Presently we passed a woman who solved all doubt. She bore with her a piece of the thigh of a human body, just as we should go to market and carry thence a roast or steak.’ The evidence accumulated inexorably as he travelled through Fang territory. The people showed no reserve in discussing the customary procedures with him, such as the division of a corpse, and the right of the king to a particular part of it. Human bones were thrown outside the houses of villagers, mixed with other offal. ‘In fact, symptoms of cannibalism stare me in the face wherever I go, and I can no longer doubt.’ It appeared to be the custom that when a villager was killed or died, his corpse was sent to another Fang village, for sale as food. ‘This seems the proper and usual end of the Fangs.’ Du Chaillu records the cutting up of the body of a man who had clearly died of disease. The villagers confirmed ‘without embarrassment’ that it was customary to eat such corpses. ‘In fact, the Fangs seem regular ghouls, only they practise their horrid custom unblushingly, and in open day, and have no shame about it.’ Unlike other tribes, the Fang had few slaves, partly because they were accustomed to eat prisoners taken in war; but they bought the bodies of slaves from other tribes for eating, paying ivory for them.

It was only among the Fang that Du Chaillu encountered positive evidence of cannibalism; but when he received a formal visit from the king of the Apingi (Pan 1), the latter immediately handed over to him a bound slave, with the remark, ‘Kill him for your evening meal; he is tender and fat, and you must be hungry.’ This incident must not be taken as proving that cannibalism existed among the Apingi. The coastal natives saw many slaves receiving food in depots (‘barracoons’) while awaiting shipment; and reports of this, filtering through to remote districts, had given rise to the belief that Negrids were fattened before being exported to serve as food for Europeans. Fear of this fate was, indeed, one of the miseries suffered by the slaves in the depots.

Reports of a tribe of cannibals called Niam-Niam, living in the region of the Bahr-el-Ghazal tributaries, began to trickle through to Khartoum about 1845. This tribe, properly called the Azande, was much feared by its neighbours on account of its ferocity in war and addiction to the eating of human flesh. The name Niam-Niam, variously spelled, was used by all the early explorers. It had been bestowed on them by the Dinka, to convey (with understatement) the idea of ‘great eaters.’ The first person to penetrate into their territory was the British ivory-trader and H.M. consular agent in central Africa, John Petherick, who in 1858 spent a little more than a fortnight at a village called by its chief’s name, Mundo, situated at the northern boundary of their tribe. In the course of his travels Petherick received information about cannibalism, but he did not witness it during his brief stay in the Azande village.

Carlo Piaggia, an Italian who attached himself to traders in the Bahr-el-Ghazal region as a leader of their caravans, stayed in or near the country of the so-called Niam-Niam for about a year in 1863-4, mostly at the village of a chief named Tombo. Towards the end of 1863 he made a journey lasting twenty days into what was unquestionably Azande territory. He only witnessed a single instance of cannibalism during his long stay in this part of Africa, when a foe slaughtered in warfare was eaten. Johnston uncharitably calls him ‘the unlearned Piaggia’ and in two places stigmatizes his explorations as ‘unscientific’; but Schweinfurth remarks that with certain exceptions, not connected with cannibalism, ‘Piaggia’s observations seem acute enough.’

Schweinfurth was the first European to obtain full information about cannibalism among the Azande. He was passing southwards from the country of the Bongo and related tribes, and reached the territory of the man-eaters at its south-eastern extremity, in the region of the Nile-Congo watershed. He noticed piles of refuse with fragments of human bones strewn among them; all around were shrivelled human feet and hands, hanging on the branches of trees. The Azande made no secret of their use of human flesh as nutriment. They spoke freely on the subject, telling the explorer that no corpses were rejected as unfit for food, unless the person had died on some loathsome skin-disease. Skulls from which flesh and brains had been obtained were exhibited on stakes beside their huts. Any person who died without relatives to protect his body was sure to be devoured in the very district in which he had lived; and in times of war, any member of a conquered tribe was regarded as suitable for eating. Of the various oily and fatty substances employed for cooking, the one in most frequent use was human fat.

Schweinfurth came across a baby, about a day old, the offspring of a woman just taken away by slave-traders. It was left, gasping feebly in the full glare of the noon-day sun. The Azande awaited its death and the meal that was to follow.

It is noteworthy that among the Azande there were some who not only refused to eat human flesh, but would not take any food from the same dish as a cannibal. This shows that conformity is not always so rigidly enforced in less advanced societies as is sometimes supposed.

Schweinfurth remarks on the many similarities between the Fang, as described by other authors, and the Azande. There were resemblances not only in physical characters, but in dress and customs. In both tribes the incisor teeth were filed to sharp points; bodies were stained with a red dye derived from the wood of a tree; there was similar elaboration in the dressing of the hair; the chiefs wore leopard skins; both were hunting tribes. These resemblances are certainly remarkable, in view of the huge distances separating the territories of the two tribes. Traditionally the Fang had migrated from the north-east, and a common origin is not impossible.

Passing south again to the further point of his exploration, near the source of the river Uele (‘Welle’), a tributary of the Congo, Schweinfurth entered the territory of the Monbuttu. He states that the members of this tribe were even more addicted to the consumption of human flesh than the Azande, and that they were in fact the most cannibalistic of all the then known tribes of Africa. The corpses of the enemy killed in war were distributed on the battlefield and dried for transport to the victors’ homes. Prisoners were driven before them ‘without remorse, as butchers would drive sheep to the shambles... to fall victims on a later day to their horrible and sickening greediness.’ Munza, king of the Monbuttu, told Schweinfurth of his order that cannibalism should be practised in secret during the latter’s visit, since he knew that Europeans held the practice in aversion; nevertheless the explorer witnessed the preparation of parts of the human body for eating, and the great majority of the skulls brought to him by members of this tribe to add to his anthropological collection had been smashed to obtain the brains (and thus rendered useless). Some were still moist, and had the odour of recent cooking.

There is nothing in the works of the seven explorers that would explain satisfactorily the significance of cannibalism in Negrid Africa. Certainly there is no indication that the custom originated there from a desire to incorporate the power or influence of the person eaten. The reported adoption of cannibalism by a tribe deprived of its cattle might suggest that lack of sufficient protein food was the primary cause; but it has already been mentioned that the Fang and Azande were hunters. The Monbuttu, too, supplied themselves with all the meat they needed by hunting, and in addition brought back very large numbers of goats from their marauding excursions against their southern neighbours. Schweinfurth remarks that ‘it is altogether a fallacy to pretend to represent that the Monbuttu are driven to cannibalism through the lack of ordinary meat.’

John R. Baker, Race, Oxford, 1974; Athens, Ga, 1981.

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